What is Unschooling?


Unschooling is based on the belief that children learn best when they are internally motivated. Unlike homeschooling which is essentially doing school (following a curriculum) at home, unschooling allows children to explore their interests and learn without the restrictions of a curriculum. 

Teacher and author John Holt — one of the founders of the modern homeschooling movement — coined the word “unschooling” in 1977 to mean “learning that does not look like school learning, and learning that does not have to take place at home.” He believed, “there is no difference between living and learning…it is impossible and misleading and harmful to think of them as being separate.”

Pam Sorooshian explains unschooling like this: 
“Unschoolers simply do not think there are times for learning and times for not learning. They don’t divide life into school time or lesson time versus play time or recreation time. There is no such thing as ‘extracurricular’ to an unschooler – all of life, every minute of every day, counts as learning time, and there is no separate time set aside for ‘education.'”

There are many other names for unschooling including “natural learning,” “life learning,” “experience-based learning,” “delight-driven learning,” and “independent learning,” and there are a ton of resources available online to learn more about it. Here are just a few: 

Over the past couple years we started our own unschooling journey, which I plan to write a lot about in the future – including how we began on this path. However, I first wanted to provide a little bit of a background information to explain some of the ideas behind unschooling. 

I welcome your questions. I absolutely won’t have all of the answers, but I enjoy a challenge and the opportunity to think about why I’m doing what I’m doing.

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How We Came to Home School: Guest Post

I’m currently on hiatus from blogging (read more about the reasons why), but want to continue to provide interesting and insightful content on my blog in the meantime. For a while I will have guest posts from various bloggers interspersed with posts by me when I am moved to write. Thank you for your understanding. — Amy (CDG)

This guest post comes from a good personal friend of mine named Jen who blogs at The Evolving Homemaker.

How We Came to Home School

I had always been fascinated in the idea that kids could learn MORE than what they learned in conventional classrooms.  I think the first time I had ever heard about homeschooling I was in college and heard about a little girl who was attempting to fly across the country solo.  While the trip ended in tragedy, I started to wonder why it was we arbitrarily sent our kids to school and how much more excited they might be about learning, if they had a little flexibility, more time to explore things they were interested in, and more freedom to discover themselves.

As I was becoming a new Mommy, I thought for sure we would home school.  I had lofty dreams of how our days would be and how much smarter my kids would be than so many others.


And then motherhood gave me a reality check.  Toddler-hood.  Woah.  Would my kids learn from me?  Was I patient enough to teach them?  Patient enough for even the hard days? Was I creative enough?  Organized enough?  Would I be able to still do laundry, home school, and have any iota of a personality and passions to call my own?

Then I started being haunted by panic attacks.  I was under a lot of stress and doing a lot at the time.  I was volunteering, heavily involved in the political season, lobbying, and raising two small children and trying to be a ‘good enough’ house goddess too.  Whatever it is that looks like.

So I sent my son to kindergarten at a local Montessori that had just opened.  I was sure they would be able to do it better than I could.  After all, they certainly knew more than I did about educating young minds, this would be better for him.

Except it wasn’t.

He began to show signs of anxiety.  He wasn’t learning to read there.  I sat in one day to find him not partaking in the ‘works’ but playing ‘cars’ with the tape dispenser instead.  He didn’t like to go.  Every morning he would ask, “Is today a school day?” and if I said, “Yes.” he would yell, cry, and be mean to his sister.  He would come in the car in the afternoon like a pressure cooker and burst in a fit of energy.

With two weeks left in the school year, they told us he should be held back in Kindergarten.

We decided instead to try it at home like we always thought we would.  With both kids.

It has been fantastic.  And hard.  And scary.  And frustrating.  And fun.  They both have time to play, they are learning to read, and they are exploring their own interests.  We are all learning more about ourselves and our passions.  I am learning that I can do it, that doubt and fear are not infallible.  That I am a ‘good enough’ Mom, and that yes they need math, but they also need my presence.

I wanted to home school because I wanted my kids to learn to think outside of the box.  That life isn’t just about going to school, getting a job, and then working for 50 years, retiring, but all the while hoping you make it to retirement without a heart attack or cancer.  Nope, the marrow of life is at their fingertips any second they decide to find it.  That is what I want them to learn, that they are the creators in their own journey, and while we use some textbooks, I don’t think they need a textbook to understand that.

Jen Parsons is Mama bear to two babes 7 and 5.  While she would like to be better at parenting, crafting, farming, sewing, ceramic scouring, knitting, homeschooling, travelling, book writing, domestic laundering,  boxing refereeing, spousal engagement, etc., she is learning to realize she cannot do it all but blogs about the journey at www.theevolvinghomemaker.com.

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Thoughts on home schooling now that we’re doing it (well, sort of)

Oh, hello 2011. Yes, yes, I realize we are now more than half-way through the first month of this year and I haven’t written one blog post yet. I can’t say I have any good reasons other than perhaps because I’ve been obsessively watching the first season of Veronica Mars (via Netflix On Demand) vegging out just a bit and life happens. OK, I confess. I watched the first season finale of Veronica Mars two nights ago – WOW! Now that was a season finale! And now that I know who killed Lily Kane, I feel like I can take a breather for a few days and even write on my blog. Yay! :) (The next time I disappear, it may be because I’m watching season two. Just sayin’.)

I could have sworn I wrote a blog post about deciding to start home schooling Ava this past fall, but wouldn’t you know it, I can’t find it. The way my brain works these days it’s hard to say if I wrote it and just can’t find it or if it’s one of those posts (among many) that I always had the best of intentions of writing and never did. I’m betting on the latter. (I did write “Is homeschooling right for us?” back in 2008, so that’s something, right? *wink*)

Anyway, yes, I am home schooling Ava this year for first grade. We started back in September. I’d seriously considered starting in kindergarten, but after I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and trying to get that under control, the timing didn’t seem to be right so off to public school she went. Little did I know I would be dealing with a tragedy this past fall proving the timing to be off once again, but I’m still happy with my decision to home school and we are forging ahead.

Although I don’t feel that we’d yet found our home schooling groove, we were starting to work in that direction when my sister Carrie died in October. After Oct. 25, 2010, very little formal home schooling took place in our home for the next two months. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. If I wasn’t busy planning a memorial service or two or traveling, I was grieving and trying to hold it together just enough to keep the kids clothed and fed. Admittedly there were plenty of days we stayed in our PJs all day. Hell, that still happens on occasion now! Ava continued to go to the part-time school she attends one day a week and continued with the Lego engineering class she was already signed up for, but that was about the extent of it. I don’t know if I would say that we were unschooling during that time or just taking a break. Yeah, I think it’s safer to say we were taking a break.

Fast forward to the past few weeks and now that the holidays are over we finally have been getting back into our groove again. I feel more equipped to take trips to the library, sit down with Ava and work on different subjects, go on “field trips,” sign up for different classes, attend home schooling functions, etc. We’re still far from finding exactly what our groove is, but we’re working on it. I’m working on it.

Quite honestly, I don’t think we fall into a specific “type” of home schooling family. Eclectic seems to be the best way to describe my “technique” so far. And that’s OK. I like that we/I have the freedom to explore what works best for us and to learn as we go. I like that we were able to take a break when we needed it, even if others might feel it was detrimental to Ava. I don’t think it was.

It’s true she’s not reading chapter books yet, but that’s OK too. We’ve been regularly reading to Ava her entire life. With Jody and I reading to her before bed, we’ve been through the seven novel series of The Chronicles of Narnia and the nine book series of the Little House books — twice — among many, many other books. Does it matter to me if she starts reading really well on her own at age 5, 6, 7 or 8? Nope. It just matters to me that she enjoys books and reading, and she does so far.

With the help of library books and the Internet, I think we have most subjects covered except for math. She knows her numbers and basic addition and subtraction, so I don’t feel she’s “behind” per se (and I try not to think of it like that anyway), but I’m still trying to find a good way to teach/learn math and welcome your suggestions. I don’t feel the need to sit down and drill her with addition and subtraction flashcards on a daily basis, but I do want her to have a good foundation in math — it’s just the figuring out how to best accomplish that where I could use a little help. It could be a curriculum you like, a web site with math games, or anything else really. I’m flexible.

That’s one thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to stay flexible when home schooling. I planned on using X, Y, and Z curricula and doing A, B, and C every day when we started out, only to decide those weren’t the best choices for us. Some days we use books. Some days we use the computer. Some days we do both. Some days we do neither. Some days we bake or explore nature or go to the library or do science experiments or dissect owl pellets or garden or do arts and crafts or play games or a number of other things or all of the above or none of the above. Some of the best learning experiences happen when we just go with the flow.

Oh, and if you are wondering what I’m doing with my 4-year-old with regard to school, he’s currently in a Waldorf-inspired preschool (though not the one Ava attended). I really like preschool for my kids and think it benefits them in a lot of ways. He will likely, however, start home schooling once he’s in kindergarten (which is still nearly 2 years away because of his late birthday). And he participates in some of the things Ava works on now so he’s really already home schooling. (Aren’t kids pretty much home schooling from the day they are born?)

I like that the world is our classroom and I like being with and learning alongside my kids. I don’t subscribe to a particular schooling philosophy. Instead, we do a little bit of this and a little bit of that and that is what works for us for now.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
– William Butler Yeats

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No Zoo For You: Confession of an Anxious Mommy

Last week when I picked up my 3.5 year old son Julian from preschool, his teacher Miss G mentioned that she’d like to take the four children in the program on a field trip to the zoo or children’s museum the following week to celebrate the last day of school. I was immediately taken aback. My baby riding in a car on the expressway to a destination nearly an hour away with someone other than my husband or me? My heart skipped a beat.

I tried to play it cool because logically I knew that Julian would probably be just fine. Also it’s not like I don’t trust this teacher. She was Ava’s preschool teacher since Ava was three and became Julian’s teacher this year as well. She’s an amazing person and I have no doubt that she would take great care to protect my child on the field trip. Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this just didn’t feel right. (It didn’t help that I’d recently watched a 7 minute video of horrific car wrecks that someone posted on Facebook. Why do I do this to myself?)

I emailed a friend who also has children at the preschool to see how she felt about it (and confirm whether or not I was an overreacting freak). She said she’d let the teacher take her kids on other outings before and she was OK with it. But she said she understood how I felt and encouraged me to tell Miss G if I was uncomfortable with it.

I thought about it some more and figured I’d just muscle through it. “Julian would be fine,” I kept telling myself. “I completely trust Miss G with him.”

I saw Miss G at the May Pole Celebration this Sunday and we were talking more about the impending field trip. I must have seemed a bit reluctant because she suddenly said, “I’m sorry, I should have asked you if you were OK with this. Are you?” I confessed. I told her I wanted to be OK with it, but the truth was that I wasn’t completely OK. She offered to let me go along with them, but due to prior commitments that day, I just couldn’t do it. I told her I would be OK and that the field trip was fine. Apparently I lied.

The next day my anxiety disorder – that has been for the most part under control for almost a year – kicked into high gear. My throat felt tight, like it was closing up. It’s a feeling I’m all too familiar with, as it was one of my many anxiety systems when I was in the thick of the illness. I knew better than to get freaked out about it, even though it’s a very unpleasant feeling, and instead tried to figure out what could be causing it. Surprisingly, the field trip was not the first thing that came to mind. As you may know, we are in the process of selling our house and buying a new one – both of which are causing my stress level to be higher than normal. So I figured it was the house stuff getting to me even though nothing in particular had happened in the last few days.

I tried not to dwell on the anxiety, but the field trip must have been in the back of my mind because out of the blue I decided to ask Twitter (my favorite sounding board) at what age they let their child ride with another person (outside of family) for the first time and if they were nervous about it. I got a lot of feedback. Most responded that it was very hard the first time. Others said they hadn’t let their child ride with another person yet. Others said they do it and it’s fine.

It made me realize that even when my 5 year old was scheduled to go on a field trip with her kindergarten class (also to a destination nearly an hour away), my husband and I were OK with her going, but he was going to chaperone, thus ride on the bus with her and the class and be there for the whole trip. She ended up coming down with the flu and didn’t go anyway, but it made me think, “If I’m not OK with my 5-year-old going on a trip an hour away from me without one of her parents, why would I be OK with my 3-year-old doing it?”

I decided to talk it over with Jody Monday evening and we came to the conclusion that it was totally OK for us to NOT be OK with Julian going on a field trip an hour away when he’s 3 years old. If it doesn’t feel right and is giving me severe anxiety, then it’s not worth it, even if it does make me *that* overprotective parent.

I emailed Miss G and explained how I felt and even filled her in a bit on my anxiety disorder. I apologized for ruining the field trip, but said that I hoped they could still go somewhere nearby to celebrate the last day. She graciously responded and said they could walk to the nearby park instead and that she’d do the zoo trip the following day (on a day Julian doesn’t go to school). I was relieved.

I know there will come a day when I have to let my kids go, but for now I’m OK with the fact that this wasn’t the right time. I’m actively working on my issues again (I found a new therapist) and in time I will be able to continue to work through some of my fears. If right now my mental well-being is more important than a field trip to the zoo, so be it. I have to trust myself and do what works for me and my family. I am thankful I’m now at a point in my life where I can recognize where my fears are coming from and address them. I will get there, eventually.

–Progress, not perfection. —

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Can Your Child Identify a Tomato? Teaching Kids About Food

I recently watched a preview from Jamie Oliver’s new show Food Revolution where first grade children were unable to identify fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, etc. While I didn’t find it shocking, I thought it was quite sad. It drives the point home that as a society we are, as Oliver points out in his TED talk (which is absolutely worth 20 minutes of your time), very disconnected from our food and where it comes from. Sure, kids eat french fries and ketchup, but do they know they come from potatoes and tomatoes? He also points out that the current generation of children may be the first in two centuries to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Of course after that I had to quiz my five-year-old Ava (to make sure I wasn’t being overly critical) and she knew what everything was except the beet (which we don’t eat because I think they taste like dirt).

Photo credit: Jacki-dee

Ava’s kindergarten class is currently doing a section about food. My daughter already knows a fair bit about what she eats since she’s been gardening with me since before she could walk. We also have friends who have chickens and we frequently visit the farmers’ market. I don’t know what specifically her class is being taught about food, but I imagine it’s pretty light and upbeat (i.e. no information about factory farming, genetically modified organisms, etc.). That’s OK with me though. I feel like you can only give five-year-olds so much information. They have plenty of time to learn more about the current farming practices in the United States when they get older. I have been impressed that they made butter in school by shaking a jar full of cream and will be making applesauce as well, and are even hatching baby chickens in an incubator in the classroom. They also took a field trip to a supermarket. A trip to a community garden would have been nicer, but there’s not much to see at a garden in Colorado in early March. Regardless, I’m glad that her school is teaching young children about food and hope that others around the country are as well.

Earlier this week I finally sat down to watch Food, Inc. for the very first time. My kids, ages three and five, who were not yet in bed sat down too, ready to watch along side me. I had a conversation with myself in my head for a minute. Should I let them watch it? I haven’t yet seen it so I have no idea what to expect. But it’s about food and where food comes from, and that’s educational, right? I decided to turn it on and keep the remote in my hand in case anything looked like it might get too gory or inappropriate for them.

Ava watched it quite intently and asked me several questions. Julian, my 3-year-old, watched bits and pieces while he wasn’t busy playing. Actually, one of the things he started playing (after watching a scene where a factory chicken farmer collects dead chickens was “throw the dead chickens (stuffed animals) into a bucket.” It was rather fascinating to see him reenact that scene.

At one point, I stopped the movie to gauge Ava’s reaction and ask her how watching it made her feel. She replied, “Sad and happy. Sad because people have to eat the chickens. Happy because I’m learning.” That reinforced my decision to let her watch it. I was very happy to hear that learning made her happy.

We ended up watching only half of the movie together before it was time for the kids to go to bed and they missed some of the more gruesome scenes like the lame cows, pig slaughterhouse and the scene of the traditional farmer and his workers killing and processing chickens (which really wasn’t that bad). After seeing it all now though, I think they would have been OK with watching it.

Food, Inc. is rated PG “for some thematic material and disturbing images” and that seems very fair. I wouldn’t let children watch it on their own, but I think if they watch with a parent it’s a great learning opportunity for all parties involved.

This spring we will start getting chickens (to eat) from a local farmer and I think a field trip of sorts to visit the farm and the chickens is in order. We’re also hoping to get chickens or maybe ducks of our own for eggs once we move and have more land. The more I can expose my children to where their food comes from, the better. We’re not perfect. We go out to eat and even eat *gasp* fast food and junk food from time to time, but my kids know what a tomato is, they see me cooking and gardening and help me with those things. All of that, I believe, will help establish healthy patterns that will last a lifetime and will hopefully keep them from becoming a statistic.

Related posts:

Soon-to-be cross-posted on BlogHer

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A mama’s thoughts on sending her daughter to kindergarten

Last Wednesday, my little girl grew up a little bit more. She went from attending a small home-based Waldorf preschool to attending kindergarten in a classroom of more than 20 children (I think there are 27) in a school of more than 400.

As I said previously, I’ve been filled with a mix of emotions with Ava starting kindergarten in “the big school.” There are some things about it I’m not fond of: like that they use hand sanitizer before lunch and snack instead of washing hands, that Ava – who is normally a social butterfly – said she was an “only lonely” at recess on Friday, the not-so-healthy snacks, that the hot lunch program is pretty much all fried, unhealthy foods, and that after two full days of school her teacher doesn’t appear to know her name yet.

I could be overreacting. I mean, I want my girl to be happy and safe and healthy, but it was only the first week of school. Perhaps once they get into their routine, hand washing will happen more regularly instead of hand sanitizing (the teacher did tell me that washing was her preference – if there’s time). And I’m sure her teacher will learn her name soon. This week they are focusing on “making and keeping friends” and maybe that will help Ava fit in a little better.

Yet, regardless of all of this, there was something about taking Ava to school that first day that just didn’t feel “right” to me. I’ve made a lot of parenting decisions in the past five years and I have to say I’ve felt peaceful about pretty much every one of them. Sure, I made some wrong choices here and there, but as for the big decisions, I’ve felt good about them. However, there was something about dropping Ava off that didn’t feel peaceful to me.

Last week I reread a post I wrote almost a year ago called Is Home Schooling Right For Us? At the time, I was leaning toward home schooling, but wanted to keep my options open. Jody and I ended up visiting a few public schools including a charter school, a regular public school and an International Baccalaureate World school (also public). We made our decision and hoped for the best. Somewhere in there the idea of home schooling got lost in the shuffle. Also, I was dealing with some heavy duty anxiety as I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder this winter and didn’t feel like I could add another thing (home schooling) to my plate.

Now here we are, a week into the school year and I’m reconsidering home schooling. There’s a great, very active home schooling community in my area and I feel like, if I wanted to pursue this, I’m in a good head space to do it now. However, I am not going to make any rash decisions. We are going to see how it goes for now. I’m going to do more research. There were a slew of helpful comments with links in my Is Home Schooling Right For Us? post and I need to read up on them. What I’d like to do is supplement a bit at home while Ava is in kindergarten and see how she responds to that and how I do with it too. If the supplemental home schooling goes well and I feel like she could learn from me and if I don’t fall in love with her school over the next several months, then we might give home schooling a try for first grade. We’ll see.

For now I’m going to try to stay positive (especially around Ava) and go to a volunteer orientation this week so I can start volunteering in the classroom and do some reconnaissance help out and see how it all works. I’ve already been emailing with the principal about the possibility of donating a Clean Well wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispenser for the classroom (by the way, I’ll be giving away some Clean Well products soon!) and to obtain the Material Safety Data Sheets (boy, are those a fun read :P) so I could take a look at what kinds of cleaning products are used in the school. I hope I’m not coming off as a pain in the ass, but rather a parent who’s concerned about the health and well-being of her child and all children in the school. The principal did encourage me to stay in touch, thanked me for my interest and said “parents like you are what make “X” the great school it is!” That last part struck me as a bit form letter-esque, but I’d like to think that she means it.

I like that I have choices and the option of changing my mind. I like that I can get involved and maybe make a positive difference. And I will keep asking my questions because knowledge is power.

I’ll be posting the rest of Ava’s first day of kindergarten pics soon. (Yes, I finally picked up my SLR again after a several month hiatus and it felt good.) :)

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